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A group of migrants are brought into Dover, Kent, earlier this year – Gareth Fuller/PA

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The Royal Yacht Association (RYA) has warned its members against rescuing migrants at sea amid fears they could be prosecuted and jailed for people smuggling.

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The RYA has advised sailors to “stand off and report” migrants rather than rescue them in face of draft laws that would prosecute them if they saved asylum seekers from drowning and brought them ashore.

It has joined with MPs in opposing the laws, which also criminalise migrant rescue missions in the Channel by Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) crews if they bring them to shore.

The row centres on a clause in the Home Office’s Nationality and Borders Bill which removes the words “for gain” and increases the sentences for smuggling into the UK from 14 years to life imprisonment.

The law previously limited prosecutions to paid people smugglers but under the changes it would criminalise sailors and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) even if they rescued an asylum seeker and landed them in Dover.

Confusion over wording of the law

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has promised an amendment that will exclude RNLI crew members and other rescue organisations by distinguishing them from smugglers operating for profit. But the Government has yet to spell it out and it is not clear whether it will include sailors on yachts.

Tom Pursglove, the immigration minister, said: “The issues are complex and we must ensure that we do not inadvertently provide loopholes to be exploited by criminal gangs who will look for any means to avoid prosecution.”

The problem has been highlighted by MP Neil Coyle, who said: “It is extraordinary that the Bill, and this clause in particular, seeks to make UK citizens bad Samaritans.

“The clause requires turning a blind eye. It requires people to watch other people die. It is a sickening extension of the culture war. It is in breach of our international obligations and law.

“The proposed changes risk UK-flagged vessels being pushed into a Kafkaesque Catch-22: assist those in distress and risk criminal liability or do not assist, breach duties of international law and witness the deaths of other people.

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“This risks criminalising voluntary assistance while failing to provide for a humanitarian exemption.”

Stuart Carruthers, the RYA’s cruising manager, said: “Our advice is to be very careful going to the rescue. You are not under any obligation to do it but you are under an obligation to report it and explain why you are standing off. You are not required to put yourself in danger.

“It sounds very harsh, but you could have a massive bureaucratic problem and be tied up in bringing illegal immigrants into the country. Our advice is to stand off and report.”

Law would ‘criminalise people for helping to save lives’

Even in those cases where a yacht could rescue maybe one or two people, Mr Carruthers said it could deter helping them.

“It potentially criminalises people for trying to save life and putting them on a British shore. That can’t be right,” he said.

More than 25,700 migrants have reached the UK so far this year, treble the total for the whole of 2020. The French announced yesterday that it was spending £10 million on high-speed boats, 4×4 vehicles and quad bikes to intercept migrants on the beaches.

Gerald Darmanin, the French interior minister, also said the money would be used to purchase night vision equipment, thermal cameras, lamps and tactical lighting projectors amid fears in the UK that the French police are being overwhelmed by the number of migrants making the crossing.

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